Guatemala's new civilian government, wary of the armed forces and close to bankruptcy, is moving cautiously to improve the nation's notorious human rights record and revive the economy.

President Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat who calls himself a "moderate leftist," has avoided dramatic gestures or programs that might alienate the military or the conservative business community.

The nation seems to have settled into a wait-and-see attitude after welcoming Cerezo's inauguration on Jan. 14 as Guatemala's first civilian president since 1970. Politicians, diplomats, businessmen and other observers praised Cerezo for seeking to build national unity but warned that the armed forces' influence and the nation's economic difficulties restricted his ability to launch major initiatives.

"His top priority is, and has to be, to consolidate the new democratic government. He can't shake things up too much," a senior diplomat here said.

Cerezo has disbanded a plainclothes police unit with a reputation for brutality, eased out of power an Army general whom he did not want as defense minister and announced plans to investigate the fate of hundreds of persons who "disappeared" under previous military rule.

But the president has pledged not to prosecute military or police personnel for political crimes committed before he took office. That stance has drawn sharp criticism from the Mutual Support Group, an organization of relatives of the "disappeared."

Cerezo also has sought to play down the importance of continuing, sporadic killings that appear to be politically motivated. He stresses that investigations are under way, and that the "majority" of killings since his inauguration "have been the result of common criminality" rather than political repression.

Guatemala's armed forces, police and right-wing vigilante groups are widely held responsible for tens of thousands of murders and abductions in political warfare between extremists of the left and right that reached a peak in the early 1980s. The fighting was condemned abroad, but the military said it was necessary to turn back a Marxist-led insurgency that now is estimated to count only about 2,000 guerrillas in the countryside.

On the economic front, Cerezo and his advisers have put together a package of spending cuts, modest tax increases, job programs and exchange rate reform, government officials said.

The package is aimed at granting some relief to the nation's impoverished majority without provoking too much ire on the part of the middle and upper classes who will have to foot the bill, according to the officials, diplomats and other analysts.

Guatemala has never pulled out of a recession that began in 1981. Inflation reached a record high of more than 30 percent last year, and the government's budget deficit is expected to nearly double in 1986. The central bank reports having no foreign reserves.

Rising international prices for coffee, Guatemala's top export, will offer some relief. But Cerezo's predecessors allowed about a third of this year's coffee crop to be sold in advance last autumn -- at last year's lower prices -- so the benefit is less than it might have been.

Much will depend on whether the government succeeds in renegotiating a part of this year's staggering foreign debt obligations and in obtaining foreign aid. The government will be under considerable pressure from its foreign creditors and potential donors to reach a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which suspended an earlier accord in 1984 because the country had not met certain economic targets.

Another critical economic issue is whether Cerezo will succeed in raising taxes on Guatemala's businessmen and landowners, who historically have paid significantly less than their counterparts elsewhere in Latin America. The president said in an interview that he was considering taxes on some exports, on unused land and on some service transactions.

"We think there are going to be confrontations, but they're not going to be of a type in which we would try to topple the government," said Alvaro Castillo, president of the Chamber of Industry.

Cerezo's most forceful single act as president has been the dissolution of the police force's Department of Technical Investigations, known by its Spanish initials DIT. It was heavily involved in political killings as well as in extortion and other corrupt practices, according to government and diplomatic sources.

A special police battalion entered the DIT's offices on Feb. 4 and detained the unit's 600 agents. Of those, 115 were dismissed for having "poor records," and the rest were offered new jobs as uniformed policemen on condition that they first take retraining courses. All but 68 accepted the new jobs.

Cerezo and a variety of other observers noted that apparent political crimes dropped off sharply after the DIT was shut down. But the Mutual Support Group complained that DIT agents should be tried for their alleged past crimes, and that it was not fair to crack down on the police and not on the Army.

"You cannot base democracy on the blood and misery of an entire people. If he's going to reestablish the confidence of the people, then he has to enforce the laws," said Nineth de Garcia, president of the Mutual Support Group.

Officials acknowledged that it was easier for Cerezo to move against the DIT, which was independent of the military, than to take on the armed forces. "The DIT was a security force. The Army is an organ of defense," an official commented.

The government's bedrock approach toward the military appears to be that it will "let bygones be bygones," as one diplomat put it, in return for cooperation in the future.

In an important sign that Cerezo has some influence with the armed forces, he succeeded in preventing former Army chief of staff Gen. Rodolfo Lobos from taking the job of defense minister in his new Cabinet. The Mutual Support Group has charged that Lobos was one of the principal "intellectual authors" of the political killings and abductions of recent years.

The new defense minister is the relatively colorless and uncontroversial Gen. Jaime Hernandez. He faces mandatory retirement in December because of his number of years in service, and was described as a transition figure.

Another test of Cerezo's relations with the military will be his ability to limit its current major role in local governments in the countryside.